Lyn Gardner: In week zero of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the city shimmers with promise
I have been in Edinburgh since Wednesday. I always love these first few days of the festival before the city becomes crazily busy, the coffee shops slap an extra 20p on a latte and everyone still looks bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, their eyes full of hope and optimism.
Of course, as Alistair Smith points out, optimism doesn’t pay the bills and is easily exploited. Especially in a city that still fails to recognise the festivals as the goose laying the golden eggs, and greed might kill it stone dead.
But the reason I really love the fringe in week zero is that, at this point in time, the entire city shimmers with promise. Every show in the brochure is still a potential standout. I wish that could still be the case three weeks later, but Edinburgh only delivers fairytale endings for the few, not the many.
Don’t lose heart. So many programmers use the fringe as a form of cultural Supermarket Sweep, even those that are overlooked by reviewers and fail to sell out can end up touring after the festival is over. If you are part of a company and are not yet in touch with the fringe’s excellent promotors office, get connected immediately.
These first few days of the festival remind me of Oscar night when everyone who has been nominated is still a potential winner
These first few days of the festival remind me of Oscar night when everyone who has been nominated is still a potential winner, right up until the moment the envelope is opened. It’s said that winning an Oscar increases life-expectancy. I don’t know if Edinburgh success confers longevity, but it can certainly boost careers, whatever your age.
When I first started coming to Edinburgh in the 1980s, both audiences and artists tended to be young. That is no longer the case. If Brexit and house prices are high on the list of issues that cause inter-generational conflict, the fringe might be another bone of contention to add to the list: the largely young and poor, often working for free, are providing entertainment for retired baby boomers who can afford a few nights in an extortionate hotel and an overpriced latte on top.
Increasingly, it is not just emerging artists who are looking to Edinburgh for a career boost, but older artists too. In any case, we shouldn’t make the assumption that all emerging artists are 21 and just out of college.
Victoria Firth is pitching up at this year’s festival, aged 46, with her first solo show: How to Be Amazingly Happy at the Pleasance Courtyard. Firth, who runs the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, is no stranger to the fringe but she normally comes as a promoter. This year she is putting herself on the line with a piece that – like several shows at this year’s festival – considers fertility, and having children or not.
Firth admits that as an experienced arts leader, it does feel “exposing to be an emerging artist”, but she says that while lots of people face up to middle age by running a half-marathon or taking up burlesque, her way is to take a show to the fringe to “meet an audience”.
At 36, Rosy Carrick is also making her fringe debut at Zoo Charteris with Passionate Machine. Like Firth, Carrick already has a successful career both as a poet and an academic (specialising in Russian revolutionary poets) but she has big ambitions for a time-travelling show about how we relate to our past and future selves. “I’m going down the Kevin Costner route: if you build it they will come,” says Carrick optimistically.
We all know what the fringe can do for writers and devisers, but can it also help actors get the exposure they need for successful careers? The Stage Edinburgh Awards are the only awards to focus on acting, which is often dwarfed by attention to productions, writers and companies.
Donald Sage Mackay certainly hopes to make his mark as an actor. He’s already enjoyed a successful career in film, TV and on stage in the US. “I’m not famous,” he says, “just a working actor.” But he is one who has worked consistently. He recently moved to the UK and Angry Alan, written by his partner Penelope Skinner, will give Mackay an opportunity to show what he can do.
I am going to try to catch up with all these debutantes later in the festival to see whether the Edinburgh fringe has done for them what they hope it will do. In the meantime – whatever your reasons for coming, and whatever stage you are in your career – I hope it’s a good one. Look after yourselves and enjoy.
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